(Sometimes-Not-So) All-of-a-Kind-Families

by Laurel Snyder

With the Jewish High Holidays behind us, and Jewish Book Month looming, it feels natural to talk about Jewish books.  Of course, being the Mixed Up Files, we’re discussing (duh) the Jewish middle grade, specifically.   To that end, we’ve invited our wonderful friend Heidi Estrin to join us, for an illuminating chat about Jewish books for kids!

Heidi hosts The Book of Life, a monthly podcast on Jewish books, music, film, and web. She is Vice-President of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and past chair of AJL’s Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. She’s also  the Library Director & Computer Specialist at Feldman Children’s Library, Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida.  But most of all, she’s a friend to kids (of all ages)who love books!

Thanks so much for joining us today at the MIXED UP FILES blog, Heidi.  We’re glad to have you here.

Thanks, Laurel, I am thrilled to be here!

A lot of people, when they think about Jewish middle grade, really fall back on All of a Kind family and Anne Frank, and then get stuck. So we were hoping you could share your thoughts with us  on Jewish characters or themes in other books, books we maybe haven’t read, or haven’t thought of as Jewish.

Let me first give All-of-a-Kind Family its due, since the series was actually pretty important in the history of Jewish kidlit as a genre. It was the first (non-Biblical) story with Jewish characters that became popular with readers from all different backgrounds. It kind of set the tone for our current embrace of multicultural literature! That’s why the Association of Jewish Libraries calls its annual Jewish children’s literature award the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, in memory of the author of All-of-a-Kind Family.

All-of-a-Kind Family and Anne Frank represent two very common themes in Jewish literature: the immigration story and the persecution story. In the twentieth century, these were two major facets of the Jewish experience, and there are many, many excellent books that reflect these themes. However, the literature is finally catching up with our modern reality; now we have books like Prince William, Maximilian Minsky, and Me by Holly-Jane Rahlens (a growing-up story that takes place in modern Germany), Julia’s Kitchen by Brenda Ferber (a family tragedy causes a girl to explore her relationship with God), the Bras & Broomsticks series by Sarah Mlynowksi (modern magical fantasy in which the characters just happen to be Jewish). This last title is a great example of a whole new subgenre of “culturally neutral” books, in which Jewish characters are present, but their religious identity is not critical to the story. I love these books because I feel that they “normalize” Jewish characters instead of making them act as cultural symbols or role models.

I would guess that there are probably more culturally neutral Jewish books for middle graders than for picture book readers or YA’s. Jewish picture books “set the scene,” by familiarizing readers with Jewish customs. Jewish YA books explore serious topics like religious identity, the Holocaust, or the situation in the Middle East. The in-between readers don’t need an intro but aren’t ready for super-heavy subject matter. Writers are more likely to give them characters who just happen to be Jewish, like Lydia Goldblatt in The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow (we only know she’s Jewish because of her name), or the hero of Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg (a passing mention of Shabbat dinners), or How to Survive Middle School (without getting your head flushed) and Deal with an Ex-Best Friend,…um, Girls, and a Heartbreaking Hamster by Donna Gephart (a Jewish protagonist who models his comic YouTube videos after his Jewish hero Jon Stewart).

That said, there are certainly middle grade books that do face Jewish issues head-on. Some great examples would be Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman (despite the title, it’s about a Jewish girl deciding out how observant she wants to be), Ethan, Suspended by Pamela Ehrenberg (Ethan’s is the only Jewish family left in his black/Latino DC neighborhood), and The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah by Nora Raleigh Baskin (a half-Jewish girl exploring her identity).

Wow! What a range… Are there Jewish authors you especially like, who maybe don’t write overtly Jewish books, but who feel decidedly “Jewish” to you, in theme or style?

Daniel Pinkwater is an author who lets his Jewish identity flow freely even when he’s not writing a Jewish book. It’s in the name choices, the settings, it’s in his style of humor (picture books by Arthur Yorinks have that same feeling). Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket is Jewish; in an interview with Moment Magazine he revealed that the Baudelaire children of A Series of Unfortunate Events are Jewish (see http://www.momentmag.com/Exclusive/2007/2007-02/200702-Handler.html), and that the “unending misery” they endure is influenced by Jewish history! And Laurel, I was so very pleased when you decided to use the family name “Levy” in Any Which Wall, so that your otherwise completely secular story can be thought of as including Jewish characters!

Aww.. thanks so much for adding me to that amazing list! I wonder…  we’ve discussed books that are “just Jewish.”  But if a reader wants to submerge a little more, are there good examples of Jewish historical fiction for middle grade readers, that would be a good starting place for understanding the history/culture?

Try Alexandra’s Scroll: The Story of the First Hanukkah by Miraim Chaikin for an exciting chapter book that takes place in Biblical times; My Guardian Angel by Sylvie Weil for Jewish life in medieval Europe, Bridge to America by Linda Glaser (based on a true story) for an immigration tale that shows life in the old country and in the new; Honey Cake by Joan Betty Stuchner for a gentle story of Holocaust resistance (many kids have already read Newbery winner Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, which takes place in the same WWII Denmark setting). The American Girl series finally got around to creating a Jewish character, so if you like your history with accessories you can get Meet Rebecca and its sequels, written by Jacqueline Dembar Greene. For a lesser-known angle on Jewish history (because not all Jews lived on the Lower East Side), try The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin.

I’m kind of floored there are so many Jewish books I haven’t read.  Since you seem to know a ton, can you tell us–what trends do you see currently? Any good new books we should be watching for?

Watch for Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch, a graphic novel whose tagline is “Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl.” (at this point, the interviewer squeals because she’s so in love with this book!) This book succeeds on so many levels! It’s got drama, Jewish customs, humor, Jewish ways of thinking, magic, and super-expressive art! (interviewer nods insanely) It effortlessly draws any reader into the Orthodox setting without feeling educational or preachy. It creates its own rich Jewish world with no need for victimhood as a source of identity or as a dramatic device. In a way, this book is the culmination of several positive kidlit (and Jewishlit) trends: multiculturalism and normalizing of ethnic characters, respecting children’s intelligence, experimental formats, and strong female leads.

Since you have the attention of lots of authors here, we have to ask, are there gaps you’d like to see filled?  Topics you think should be addressed, or styles of books you think we need more of?

We need more FUN books and more FUNNY books. Jewish kidlit tends toward the serious, and we urgently need to balance that out with more light-hearted and adventurous fare. We need to help Jewish kids build an identity NOT based on victimization, and we need to portray Judaism to the rest of the world in a positive way. That’s what All-of-a-Kind Family did, after all! We also need to stop relying on Yiddish culture for our humor, because modern kids just don’t get it (sad as that may seem to adults).

And now that you’ve told us about so many good books, we have to ask– what’s your favorite Jewish middle grade title?

Viva la Paris by Esme Raji Codell is so amazing that as soon as I finished it, I went back and started reading it again. It’s not a conventional Jewish book at all, but it mixes Jewish and universal themes together really powerfully. A young black girl learns about the Holocaust, bullies, and her own power to rise above cruelty, all through her relationship with her Jewish piano teacher. When I interviewed the author for my podcast, she told me that she wrote it in response to her own young students, who were having trouble processing the harsh reality of Holocaust history. Vive la Paris introduces man’s inhumanity to man in an age-appropriate way that is ultimately empowering instead of depressing.  The Sydney Taylor Book Award committee honored this book with a silver medal, so I’m not alone in thinking this is one terrific book!

As a final note, I’d like to recommend that anyone seeking middle grade Jewish titles keep an eye on the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s “Older Readers Category.” Since the award began in 1968, it’s been recognizing the best Jewish chapter book annually (in later years they added a picture book category, and finally a YA category, but the middle grade books were the original format being honored). There are gold and silver medalists, plus an annual list of “notables,” so this gives you a good long list of Jewish middle grade titles to draw upon. Watch www.jewishlibraries.org for the annual January announcement of winners, and get a complete list of past winners right here.

Heidi, we really can’t thank you enough for sharing all this with us.  You’ve given us all an amazing wealth of information, and we only wish you could be our librarian!

From From the Mixed-Up Files… of Middle-Grade Authors

The original article may be found here.

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